Ratdog | 3.02.04 | The Fillmore | San Francisco, CA
At the top of the stairs, a budding young surf babe held out an apple to a middle-aged long hair scruff of a man. Her wink said, "Go on, take a bite," and he cautiously accepted the bright red fruit from her delicate, be-ringed hand. Her eyes said more than she meant them to and he opened his mouth to say something just in time to watch her scamper off, a Rose rambling into the humid pack inside The Fillmore Auditorium. Little gardens of Eden such as this spring up at Ratdog shows, the intersection of mythical ideas, heat-of-the-moment sweat and sex, blues soaked in something fragrant, not a little righteous anger, a smile towards eternity with feet planted firmly in the present. More so than Phil and Friends, much more than the Other Ones and even more than even the Grateful Dead, Ratdog is all sinews, hot breath and legs pumping. They are life, baby, and an early March night in San Francisco found them imparting that force to the switched-on faithful.
Decked out in his omnipresent shorts and overhanging Levon Helm beard, Bob Weir leads one of the finest, loosest ensembles the music of the Dead has ever encountered. Not always easy to pinpoint exactly where it's different but you can feel it, taste it, as Weir really sells those "aces back to back" or assures you "it's gonna be a long, long crazy, crazy night." No doubt. His band is a mix of heavyweight musicians possessed of a wry sense of humor. Jazz hounds Kenny Brooks (sax) and Jay Lane (drums) bring in a hard bop mixed with the street slap of their hip-hop unit Alphabet Soup. Behind a bank of William Castle mad scientist keyboards, Jeff Chimenti is the wonderfully unholy mix of Ray Charles mighty right hand and a mercury Mad Hatter, always adding in strange, oddly magic touches in the wings when he isn't pounding it out 88-keys strong. Guitarist Mark Karan tumbles out of a mold most thought gone after about 1976, a natural born musician's musician, all the feel of a good massage capped off with a slap on the ass, technical as Larry Coryell, gutbucket like Buddy Guy. Newest addition to the litter, bassist Robin Sylvester, is nearly subliminal, present in every note but just out of reach most of the time. He's a far cry from original low-end theoretician Rob Wasserman but it's too early to say just how different he'll make this music. Their oeuvre, anchored by the Dead material, includes a healthy sprinkling of covers and a spine constructed from the stunning Evening Moods album, to date Ratdog's only studio release. In their hands it all proves malleable as Playdough on a warm day.
Let's follow that sun coast spirit into the crowd, "Ramble On Rose" peeking through the keyhole at the end of Dylan's "She Belongs To Me." She is indeed a hypnotist collector amongst walking antiques but that's the mix, nostalgia mongers mingling with freshly plucked flower children, old and young able to appreciate real rib-stickin' rock 'n' roll. It's a growing pleasure to hear Weir tear into signature Jerry Garcia tunes, craft the one hundred and first verse in ragtime, put his own stamp on things. Whether people like to admit it or not, the song IS the thing when it comes to Grateful Dead music. That's how a panoply of singers can immerse themselves in these verses and still come out with new meaning. Weir just happens to be one of the prophets who delivered these stone tablets to us and thus embodies something extraordinary when he belts them out. Karan's positively slinky ooh-aah picking and Brooks' call-and-response quack make the trail move quickly, surely beneath dusty feet.
There's a touch of grit to this band, something consciously unpolished. Their light show is simple texture and subtle accent. No oversized skeletons, no fancy-schmancy backdrops, no clowns or acrobats. Ratdog is just a fine ol' band of brothers who've come to your town to play them as well as the good lord lets 'em. There's a lot less history clinging to them than one finds at a Phil show or especially when the Dead get together. Personally, I find this freedom-laden incarnation Bob's best these days; the one most connected with music happening now, not something haunted by too much memory. What they play isn't a recreation of another thing but a bright, immediate newborn creature.
The lyricism of Mr. Zimmerman's "Senor" follows "Rose" with bile spittin' intensity. Subtitled "Tales of Yankee Power" it is sadly as timely now as when it was released in 1978. Some lessons, apparently, are learned much more slowly than others. Weir snarled out the words, leaving a little venom on a line like "trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field" much as he would later in the show during the first ever performance of "Black Peter." It must be irksome to still be singing "the people might know, but the people don't care" decades on. Given that this Tuesday gig fell on a voting day in California there was a bit more nagging meaning woven into the song selection than usual. Fine by me. Weir has always had a pissed off edge, something less than nice mixed in with his love songs, sailor stories, and Mexicali blues. His "Senor" is wistful as much as pissed off, a mood blown in from the Sierras, saturated with thick organ and Kenny's lacing of poetic couplets, triplets, and quadrilles (how Dylan could use a man like him...).
Rather than allow things to get heavy, man, they switch gears, taking a rare full stop before plowing into "Loose Lucy" her own bell-ringing, hot self. Usually, flow is the rule rather than the exception with Ratdog, seamless shifts in pace and pitch. One often wonders how they've gotten to where they're standing but never once felt a hitch on the way there. The sleazy bar band I adore arrives as "she comes running and we ball all night." Weir straps on his electric blue guitar, all the candy colored rev of a vintage car, and grins naughtily as he shakes the tree to see if the fruit is ripe. The erectile machinations of "Lucy" bring out the horn dog in Bob, giving us a glimpse of all those women who've informed his music over the years, some a real good time, others not so much. His band resonates with this Kundalini pulse and rises, as they must, to the occasion.
"Bury Me Standing" takes us back down the path Dante and Montaigne walked, a cry to get up off your knees and at least die with integrity. Sam Peckinpah would have loved it. A funk fog guitar solo from Far East Mississippi draws me over to stand near Mark Karan. A Krautrock spaciness emerges in the tail section, weird echoes between sax bleats, majestic drums spiraling like a vortex, bright key pings, the whoosh of star shine Enterprise cruise control. The people all the way back to the wall are a broiling, froiling mass, a reflective physicality that hits you in the heart and glands.
They close the set with one Weir seems to never be able to get enough of, "West L.A. Fadeaway." I'll confess to never, no never, liking this tune with the Grateful Dead. Ratdog turned me around at the Roseland Theater in Portland the first time I caught them back in April of 2001. Curiosity and a need to be in Weir's company after too long an absence drew me north and they closed their first set of a stunning two-night run (later enshrined as the band's first official live release) with it. Maybe it's the charged up electric shock of this ensemble, maybe I'm just older and can appreciate the vibe better but now I actually look forward to these trips along L.A. freeways in all their top-down-blond-in-the-passenger-seat-low-sun-in-the-sky glory.
During a middle section improvisation I spy a just-post-teen Japanese dude standing stock still, the Buddha's calm on his brow, exhaling a steam furnace stream of smoke. His entire countenance spoke of the easy peace that comes with the convertible, clear road, big green light speedway, Vanishing Point overcharge inherent in the song. Like the majority of us, he was experiencing a profound sense of connection with the musicians. It was a feeling that would only intensify in the second part of the night.
Simply put, the second set ranks as one of the single best stretches I've ever heard these guys run. Holding with a tradition within this band, things began again with an acoustic trio. A far cry from the Greenwich Village coffee shop strum of other evenings, they played with the English country charm of someone like Bert Jansch, all green hills and dew and lonely, lovely chords hanging in the air. Bob gives the Beatles' "Blackbird" a chopped, unusual reading, Karan placing feathers in the wings as it takes slow flight. In many ways the Beatles are as good a touchstone for Ratdog as Weir's other band. The Liverpudlian Beatles tried to mate invention to accessibility, which is as succinct a description of this band as one can muster.
They return to a full band press on The Band's "The Weight" but not before the trio takes a knock at Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee." Weir knows a strong lyric and this one lets him unfold one of those mini-movies like Marty Robbins' "El Paso" he's so fond of. A slow build out from the acoustic section brings them to Nazareth but not sounding half past dead on the sing-along soother. Plunking, raindrop piano cooled the shambling George Romero masses as we about smiled ourselves to death, a load being taken off, lighter for the hymn. I kick myself mentally for not catching the Robbie Robertson feel to Karan's style earlier, the same skill for being right where he ought to be at all times. Weir punches the last verse with a shivery falsetto, a voice pushed to the brink of its limits for 30 years, beautiful in its striving.
Invisible bass works through the knots and stretches out over a pile of "Ashes and Glass." This standout from Evening Moods flicks on the 'lectric rock jazz headphone light bulb, a clear-eyed poem towards the future with hints of Cat Stevens' "Moonshadow" nursery rhyming. It is the equal of anything in the Dead catalog and one of the reasons I've long felt that Ratdog's studio work may well be the single best effort Weir has ever put together. There's a voice different from the one he spoke with on American Beauty or any other doctrinaire Dead album. I like this voice, I like who comes through, I like the sense of Weir being unguardedly himself.
He faltered at first, stumbling at the mic, but that just makes him more human. To keep track of all those words, all those choruses from a thousand miles of road ain't no easy task, perfectly imperfect and right as the Native American custom of leaving a break in the line of a circle, a blemish to keep things from being too controlled, too contained.
I catch myself screaming "Oh hell yeah!" as the bright, dappled chords of "Eyes of the World" stir from the ashes. A tie-dyed compatriot to my right mutters, "This couldn't be nicer," as the shaggy baptism of "Eyes" anointed us. From the Norman Vincent Peale meets Tim Leary chorus to the soaring quality of the melody, there's ecstatic revelatory life force here. Brooks' soprano sax flits in like Coltrane's ghost revisiting a favorite thing and during a nicely out-there jam Robin Sylvester hit us with some heavy Cliff Burton (Metallica) bass technique that against expectation evolved into a Tropicalia haze sultry enough to prompt one to dab on suntan lotion. A waitress chicken strutted by, tray held high, work made pleasant by a song.
And that's what makes Ratdog work so very well: a profound love of great songs. They may possess all the skills they need to pay any bills that come their way in this lifetime but they never throw it in your face. There's an amazing humility to them. They serve something larger than ego, fame, fortune hunting. Troubadours, bards, traveling tent preachers, call them what you will, but a holy spirit touches what they do. It is what draws all their friends to come and see them each night. It is communion with 100-proof wine and a kiss to seal the deal.
As "Black Peter" faded into his squalling fever, a voice midway back from the stage yelled, "Sugar!" and by gum they broke into it. That was the level of connectivity going on at the Fillmore. There's no way they heard him above the din but he spoke for us and that included the band. And with the rest of the flock, I sang myself hoarse as blossoms bloomed and heads emptied under rays of violet. Glorious stuff that could surely make happy any man.
Words by: Dennis Cook
Images by: Susan J. Weiand
JamBase | California
Go See Live Music!